They have become the must-have celebrity accessory, beloved by stars such as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
But Hollywood’s craze for so-called ‘handbag’ dogs has led to an explosion in the number of chihuahuas being abandoned at animal rescue centres.
Now a big-hearted Liverpudlian nicknamed ‘English John’ has set about saving hundreds of the tiny dogs by driving them from California to Canada, where there is huge demand for the breed.
John Murray, a former limo driver who once ferried Helen Mirren to the Oscars, transports up to 35 dogs at a time on a 24-hour, non-stop, 1,500-mile journey from LA to Calgary, which he undertakes every seven to ten days.
The 48-year-old has saved 1,900 dogs this year, about half of which are chihuahuas. Murray, a big, ebullient man whose thick Scouser accent is unchanged despite two decades in the US, says: ‘Films such as Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Legally Blonde led to a huge increase in the popularity of chihuahuas, particularly in LA and southern California.
‘People saw them being carried around in handbags by people like Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez, Miley Cyrus and the Osbournes, and a chihuahua craze was born.
The problem is that these aren’t fashion accessories – they are dogs who yap, poop, pee and are highly strung and need lots of attention. The numbers being abandoned has turned into an epic problem.
But in Canada they can’t get enough small dogs. They have rescue centres with large breeds but there is a waiting list for families who want a lap dog.
‘A light bulb went off in my head a couple of years ago. It is basic supply and demand. We have a supply of chihuahuas here in California and the demand is in Canada. So I decided to do something about it.’
The avid Liverpool football fan currently lives in a sprawling ranch home in Norco, a dusty horse-breeding town an hour east of the bright lights of Sunset Strip and celebrity-filled Beverly Hills. The house, which is going through foreclosure, belonged to another animal-lover.
‘She told me I could stay here until the bank takes it,’ Murray says. ‘After that I’ve got another place I can stay. The world of animal-rescuers is close-knit. We don’t make money by what we do. I rely on donations for everything from food to petrol.
‘I get paid a small amount when I deliver the dogs to Canada, roughly £50 a dog, but that just about covers my petrol bill, repairs to the van, dog food, crates and my everyday food costs. This is a vocation, not a job.’
Murray, who quit his job with a major Hollywood limo firm three years ago to concentrate on his charity work, shares the ranch with eight pet dogs, all rescues. The tools of his trade are everywhere; piles of plastic dog-carriers litter the front lawn, while rows of medicine for dog ailments from kennel cough to flea medication line his kitchen shelves.
There are bags of dog food stacked in the garage, some of which he uses as a makeshift bed in the back of the air-conditioned van during his travels.